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Volume 41. No. 2.
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For Carlos Guangorena '76, it's helping others finance theirs ...
The American Dream

By Michael Balchunas

He was born in Mexico, but Carlos Guangorena's path to the presidency of Plaza Bank really starts on Park Row Drive, a potholed street skirting Elysian Park on the east side of Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles.

Perched cheek-by-jowl on the hillside are a cluster of small stucco bungalows painted pink and red and green. Fences, bars and locked gates separate each house's thin sliver of patio from the street. A moldering sofa lies upturned in a trash-strewn lot. A few steps away, the hillside drops precipitously to the Pasadena Freeway far below.

The freeway sounds like a rushing river day and night. "Extreme poverty is how I would describe it," says Guangorena, a 1976 Pomona graduate, of his childhood. "There were times when we didn't have anything to eat. I always knew there wasn't a Santa Claus, because lots of times we'd get our gifts from the church. And I'd see a tag on one that said 'Boy, Age 10' - hey, that's me!" But life there was far from dismal. The woods of Elysian Park beckoned across the street, and the hilltop offered sweeping views of the city. "Amazingly, there's still a little community up there on this one little 10-house street, and it hasn't changed much in probably 50 years," says Guangorena. "We could hear the announcements from Dodger Stadium at our house. Sometimes we would try to sneak in during the seventh or eighth inning if the gates were open and watch the end of the game."

Guangorena's family had immigrated from Delicias, Mexico, when Carlos was 2. His father came as a laborer in the Bracero program. "Bracero means 'arms,' and during World War II, when our troops were overseas, the U.S. needed workers, so they brought in 'guest workers' from Mexico to help," Guangorena says. "The Bracero program allowed you to get permanent residency, and you could bring over your family. My grandfather was already here and brought my dad. It was a chance for a better life."

Guangorena excelled academically, bypassed second grade, and won a scholarship to attend Cathedral High School, a nearby parochial school. As a senior, he was accepted at Columbia University, but says he hesitated to go "from one poverty-stricken place in East L.A. to Harlem." He was encouraged to attend Pomona by Theodore Tsukahara Jr., a senior lecturer in economics at the College, who had an association with Cathedral High. Things did not go well at first. "I felt different. I felt like a stranger, although I never felt discriminated against at Pomona," Guangorena says. "I almost transferred after my first year. There was too much culture shock. I had felt I was at the top of my class in high school, but at Pomona, everyone had been at the top of their class. The food was not what I was used to. There were not a lot of Latinos."

Basketball kept him from leaving. He played all four years. "I had a sense of belonging as part of the team. So I hung in there, and it soon got better." As a senior, he began dating his future wife, Linda J. Lang '79, a non-Latino from the Pacific Northwest.

It was a turbulent time in poor urban areas across the nation. There were riots in East Los Angeles. At the Claremont Colleges, students from the Black Studies Center and the Chicano Studies Center planned a takeover of the Pendleton Building in a protest involving cuts to a program for minority students and tenure for the centers' faculty.

"I remember getting a call from MEChA, the Chicano organization, saying we were going to do it this morning," he says. "I wore a brown band to support it, but I was not one of the people who took over the building. I felt I wanted to act through the system. I thought there were other ways to do it, although I do believe that at certain times people may have to engage in civil disobedience."

After graduating, Guangorena studied for a master's in business administration at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was among several students chosen to assist the admissions board in reviewing applications from Latinos. "We'd say, 'This is why we think this person is OK despite their SAT scores.' It might be a single mother holding down several jobs, and they'd admit them, and they would flourish. It's something that I think made a huge difference, and I'm very proud of it."

Guangorena had known for years what he wanted to do after college.

 "I made the decision way back in high school that I wanted to be a banker," he says. "I really wanted to get out of the poverty that I grew up in. I thought that a bank branch manager was a pillar of the community, and that if I became a branch manager, I could give something back. That was my intent."

He started as a commercial loan officer at Bank of America. After marrying, he and his wife moved to Seattle. Guangorena worked his way up at several banks, eventually becoming a senior vice president at Wells Fargo. The poverty of Park Row Drive was far behind him.

 Then Michael E. Sotelo, a construction-industry executive in Seattle, approached Guangorena with a plan that took him back to his roots. Sotelo, who grew up in the Boyle Heights section of East Los Angeles, was part of a small group of people, most of Latino heritage, who wanted to open a bank that would serve Washington's growing Latino population. They saw both a business opportunity and a chance to help educate and elevate an underserved segment of society.

"Sixty percent of the Latino community in Washington is unbanked," says Sotelo. "One of the most important things we can do is to increase financial literacy for Latino business people, as well as for other adults and even children. There is a huge opportunity up here."

The founders wanted Guangorena to become president and CEO of the new bank. "We started by looking at who was the best candidate, Latino or not," says Sotelo. "Carlos' name kept coming up. He was very well known and respected. The fact that he happened to be Latino was a double bonus."

Sotelo made Guangorena an offer he thought the latter could not refuse. But Guangorena did. "I think he turned us down three times," Sotelo recalls.

Guangorena had his reasons. Sotelo's proposal, Guangorena thought, could put his own hard-won achievements at risk. "I was very comfortable where I was," he says. "It's a gamble. It's going after a segment that is still less than 10 percent of the state's population. Also, I've always been kind of in the background. I never have seen myself as the person to be up front. But Mike Sotelo said, 'I'm from Boyle Heights, and that's why I know you're the person to do this. I know who you are and where you came from. I know that you have the drive and the ability to do this. This is what you should do.'"

Edgar Martinez, a former professional baseball player for the Seattle Mariners and a highly admired figure in western Washington, was considering investing in the new bank. "The clincher," says Guangorena, "was that Edgar Martinez told me, 'Carlos, if you're in, I'm in.'"

Plaza Bank opened in 2006. The name was chosen because plaza means the same in English and Spanish. Its main office is downtown, in the 44-story U.S. Bank Centre. A branch office in a suburb south of Seattle provides retail banking services. "We had our first financial literacy class in February," says Shauna Plante, the branch manager, who is bilingual. "We are trying to work within the community, to make people feel comfortable with the financial institution itself."

The bank provides wire transfers that permit workers to send money to Latin American or other countries for $5 per transaction. Remittances to Mexico from the United States totaled about $23 billion last year, with about 66 million transfers, according to the Bank of Mexico.

The bank's business model is centered on commercial lending. "We feel that our path to success is to be a commercial bank with a Latino focus, not to be a Latino bank per se," says Guangorena. "Our goal is to be the best commercial bank in the state."

The greatest impact the bank can have on the Seattle area's Latino population, Guangorena says, is through "access to capital. That's where we feel we can make a huge contribution to the community. We're not going to sacrifice our underwriting standards, but we feel there are areas we can understand, for example, in granting credit. We can also educate the retail banking community. Latinos are not just poor. It would be foolish to ignore that there's a lot of money in the Latino population. We want to show our community we can grow with them as they become more wealthy. People categorize us as Latino bankers, but we're bankers first. That's why we're going to be successful."

Guangorena's own life is a template. From Park Row Drive, he could look out across the tumbledown neighborhoods of Chavez Ravine to the mirrored-glass towers of downtown Los Angeles. Now, from his corner office on the 37th floor of the U.S. Bank Centre, his view ranges from Seattle's southern suburbs to emerald-green Puget Sound, to the white mountains of the Olympic Peninsula, and north to the Space Needle and beyond.

"This is pretty heady stuff-for a kid born in Mexico, raised in the barrios of East Los Angeles, to be the president and CEO of a commercial bank. That's truly the American dream," he says. "It worked out for me, and I'm proud of it. I'm humbled by it, too."

Guangorena was the first in his family to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. "As soon as I turned 18, I applied," he says. "I was going to be here, and I wanted to vote. It was not without controversy in my family. You get stuff from your brothers saying you're a traitor, you're no longer Mexican. I said, 'I'm still Mexican, but I'm not going back to Mexico to live. This is where I want to live. I want to be able to make a difference, and to have a voice in what we do here.' After a while, it slowly changed, and most of my brothers did it. My mom did it. They realized you don't have to give up where you came from just because you're a citizen."

The lesson has stayed with him.

 "As a kid, there is such a huge sense of wanting to fit in and to assimilate. But over time, you come to realize that you can do that without getting rid of what you have."
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